Time Runs Out for Cypriot Solution
Time Runs Out for Cypriot Solution
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Time Runs Out for Cypriot Solution

After April, the next phase of the dispute could be hostile partition.

Is it not a paradox, Greek Cypriot President Demetris Christofias asked in full rhetorical flight before the United Nations General Assembly last month, that Turkey should now have a seat on the U.N. Security Council? The apparent contradiction, of course, being that Turkish troops have occupied one third of Mr. Christofias's Mediterranean island country-a European Union member no less-for 35 years, despite U.N. resolutions demanding their withdrawal.

This is indeed an anomaly. But so is the fact that it was the Greek Cypriots in 2004 who opposed, and the Turkish side that supported, the U.N. plan that would have seen almost all those troops withdraw.

The paradoxes of Cyprus don't end there. Right now is the best chance in years to break through the half-century-old Cyprus deadlock. The current talks on a settlement between the Cypriot leaders are doing much better than is generally realized, but the time left to resolve these paradoxes is short. In April 2010, the pro-solution Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat faces an election. Absent the success on Cyprus that he promised to achieve, all the signs are that he will lose to a hardline candidate. If that were to happen, three decades of efforts to reunite the island on the basis of a bicommunal, bizonal federation would end. Indeed, for many, the old status quo ended in 2004, when Cyprus and the EU missed a big opportunity and Cyprus entered the Union as a divided island.

If by April the talks fail to achieve a collaborative settlement to deal with the island's problems, this new phase of the Cyprus dispute will be a sharp swerve toward hostile partition. If the two current like-minded leaders cannot achieve a settlement in the currently near-ideal regional climate, even the U.N. will not be willing to invest time, people and money on a fifth major round of negotiations on the same basis.

But cynicism and complacency mean that almost nobody takes the current negotiations seriously, even on the island. Both Turkish and Cypriot leaders want a realistic solution; but because Ankara and the Greek Cypriots have not talked directly for 40 years, neither believes the other side is genuine and neither has fully committed to compromise.

A failure to solve Cyprus would also doom deeper EU-NATO ties: Cyprus is a member of one organization and Turkey a member of the other; yet most EU countries have shown no support whatsoever for solving the dispute. Greek Cypriots are actually having to restrain some EU member-state leaders, who see in the Cyprus dispute a new way to close down Turkey's EU accession process. Worse, while the world has been worrying about big-power missile grandstanding around Iran and Russia, it is Athens and Ankara who have been actually stocking up on missiles in case growing frictions turn into frustrated anger. Watch this space: Gunboats and seismic survey ships have already been sparring over oil prospecting rights, with Turkey disputing territorial claims made by Greece and Greek Cypriots in the Mediterranean.

All sides will lose if the talks collapse. Greek Cypriots will suffer from greater insecurity, Turkish troops indefinitely on their doorstep, and a much-reduced chance of compensation for or restitution of property. Turkish Cypriots will see their community scatter or be driven into integration with Turkey. Ankara will lose the regional charisma and economic boon of having a real EU accession process. The EU will forego commercial opportunities in Turkey, sacrifice strategic depth in regional disputes and see a withering in the soft power that results from having Turkey anchored in an EU process and thus a convincing advocate when it speaks up for European values in meetings with Middle Eastern leaders.

It's therefore in the EU's interest to support the process, both by pressuring the two Cypriot leaders, and by reassuring Turkey that its accession perspective remains open if and when it meets all the objective criteria of European Union membership. And it is in Turkey's interest to live up to its reputation as a peace-making regional power, and reach out to the Greek Cypriots to make them believe that any settlement will be implemented with a speedy troop withdrawal, and that the resulting normalization will be beneficial and safe for all.

After more than three decades, all parties to this dispute have good reasons to believe that they are absolutely in the right. The real paradox is that so many rights have so far only added up to one big wrong.


Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus

A new round of talks has begun in Cyprus and the key parties seem eager to reach a settlement. However, the official goal — a bizonal, bicommunal federation — has stymied negotiators for decades. It is possible that the time has come to consider a mutually agreed separation, within the European Union, of the Greek and Turkish parts of the island.

The closest the two sides have come to an agreement on federal reunification was a decade ago under the Annan Plan, named after United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. It built on decades of work and won the support of the UN, EU, United States, Turkey, and even Greece. Indeed, any federal deal will have to look pretty much like the one hammered out in those years of intense negotiations.

Yet the reality of public sentiment bit back. 76 percent of Greek Cypriots said no to this plan at referendum. As Annan wrote to the Security Council afterwards, “what was rejected was the [federal] solution itself rather than a mere blueprint.”

Today the two sides — whose infrastructure and administrative systems are almost completely separate — are, if anything, further apart. The numbers of people crossing the border have fallen, while polls show weakening support for a federal outcome. In 2004, the Turkish Cypriot side supported the Annan Plan with 65 percent of the vote. But in 2010, they firmly voted back to power a leader whose whole career has been dedicated to a two-state settlement. 

Miracles may happen — and there are many on the island who remain desperate for a settlement — but my judgment is that any federal deal will have an even tougher time succeeding now.

Fresh thinking is needed.The two sides should broaden the agenda alongside the well-worn process of UN-hosted talks between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators.

One idea that should be fully explored is what the terms might be if Greek Cypriots — the majority of the island’s population — were to offer Turkish Cypriots citizens full independence and fully support them to become members of the European Union. 

Such a deal would have to be agreed to by Greek Cypriots, voluntarily and through a referendum. This will be hard. Greek Cypriot public opinion still, in theory, absolutely rejects any partition. But even senior Greek Cypriot officials agree in private — especially around the dinner tables of business leaders seeking a way out of Cyprus’s crushing banking crisis of 2013 — that there is an increasingly urgent need for a new way forward for the economy and for society.

There is also a growing drumbeat of expert opinion urging Greek Cypriots to consider outcomes beyond the traditional federal goal, which has become so discredited that few on Cyprus are paying much attention to the new talks. International Crisis Group has just published Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality, while the U .S. Congressional Research Service concluded last year that “a ‘two-state’ solution seems to have become a more prominent part of the Turkish Cypriot/Turkey rhetoric and unless a dramatic breakthrough occurs early in the negotiations… that reality may gain more momentum.”

Polls show that key parts of what Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots really want can look surprisingly similar. The Greek Cypriots have long wanted a solution securely embedded in European values and structures. That is what Turkish Cypriots say they want too: to become part of the European Union, not part of Turkey, even if they do wish that, in extremis, Turkey would protect their small community. The European part is crucial.

This can only happen with voluntary Greek Cypriot agreement, something that will have to be persuasively won by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots. They will need to offer convincing terms: withdraw all or almost all of Turkey’s 30,000 troops on the island; end the demand to continue the 1960s “guarantorship” so hated by Greek Cypriots; guarantee compensation of Greek Cypriots for the two-thirds of private property in the north that is owned by them; return the ghost resort of Varosha to its original owners; and pull back to hold 29 percent or less of the island. 

After what will necessarily be a multi-year transition, this will also produce the European solution that Greek Cypriots so often say they want. The two sides will share the same basic legal norms and regulations, the same currency, and the same visa regime. Secure and confident in their new sovereign rights, the Turkish Cypriot side will likely waive the un-European demand for “derogations,” or limits on property purchases by Greek Cypriots in the new entity. 

Nobody is completely right on Cyprus: all parties share responsibility for the frozen conflict on the island. At the end of the day, an independent Turkish Cypriot state within the EU is not rewarding one side or another. Europe will doubtless flinch at accepting a small new Turkish, Muslim state in its midst. 

But Europe helped create this situation, since Brussels breaking its own rules contributed to the clumsy 2004 accession of the disunited island to the EU. 

Moreover, at least 100,000 of the 170,000 Turkish Cypriots are already EU citizens through their Republic of Cyprus passports.

Europe will also be among those who gain from resolving a dispute that has for four decades burdened so many local and regional processes, not least the long-hamstrung relationship between the EU and NATO, and the new question of how the countries of the East Mediterranean can most quickly, profitably and safely exploit new offshore natural gas reserves. This is not partition: it is reunifying Cyprus within the EU.

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